It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.... If you keep these ... you will be doing what is right" (Acts 15:27).
When I was asked if I would be willing to give one of the three recollection days during the coming General Chapter my immediate reaction was twofold. First, I felt honored to be chosen to address the “cream” of the society at such an important gathering. Second, my worry was, will a prophet be accepted in his own hometown? Having accepted it the next question was what should I talk about? One thing was clear: my principle in any talk, conference or address to whatever kind of audience was always to make sure that it turned out to be a word of encouragement, orto use a biblical phrase, that it would be inspiring and if possible generate joy and enthusiasm for the beauty of the message we proclaim and the vocation we have received from the Lord.
Since I was told to follow the Draft Statement for the Chapter that had been prepared, I decided to make it the aim of my talks to encourage you to open yourselves to the Spirit so that he can give “visions to the young” (and not illusions) with which to envision a Society for tomorrow and “dreams to the old” (and not nightmares) when they start thinking about the future of our congregation. And so I chose as title for the first conference the text from the prophet Joel; “It is the Spirit who give visions to the young and dreams to the old” (Joel 3:2).
My intention is to present to you in this first recollection not some new topics to be considered in this General Chapter - no, no new topics to be pondered on - you certainly have enough material on your agenda - I want to outline to you what we could call the spiritual background against which all your deliberations and hoped-for solutions for your difficulties and problems should be seen, checked and receive their binding power. Theologically, it should become the horizon of understanding which should always be
present in all our work without focusing on it constantly. One could also call it the mood or the atmosphere, in which the chapter is to be conducted.
The biblical text which contains in a nutshell the spirit in which a chapter should be
conducted, might be adequately expressed in the opening sentence of the first assembly of the early Church when it says: the Holy Spirit and we have decided. That means, I want to say something about the importance of the Holy Spirit during an assembly like yours and about the work mentality you need when dealing with the topics on your agenda.
General Chapters are privileged moments in the history of a congregation, where the Spirit of the congregation is to be renewed, the charism is rediscovered and confirmed, problems are worked out and the Spirit offers the direction into which the group should move. These are points which are clearly outlined in the final draft Statement for this Chapter. It is not that you do not believe in the Spirit’s presence but the question is: how conscious are you in all your deliberations to his enduring and all pervasive presence?
But I would like to remind you of one of the pitfalls we all too easily fall into and which our former General Superior, Father John Musinsky, used to express in this way:
“During the time of my administration I was frequently struck by the following observation: Most of the time when our society was approached to take over a mission or a special task, we would take up the request in the General Council and deliberate about it. The normal questions to be asked should have been three: does the Holy Spirit want us there? Do we have the persons to do the job? And thirdly: is the money available? But I must admit most regretfully that very often we reversed the order. We asked first: do we have the persons and the money before we asked whether the Spirit really wanted us to go there. While all three are essential, do not reverse the order.” Then he would say to me: “John, remember, always listen to the Spirit first!”
And I would add: So that our young will have visions, not illusions and our old will have dreams and not nightmares. Because it is only the Spirit who can give both, visions and dreams that promise a future full of hope.
Let me start with a story. In the year 2000, just before the last general chapter, one of the General Councilors asked me at the table: “As a theologian, what appropriate Scriptural text would you propose as a kind of guideline for all our chapter deliberations and also for the theme of the chapter itself? I suggested the well-know phrase from the story of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, “ Son of Man, can these dry bones ever live again? “ Well, it was taken in good humor but turned down as too pessimistic. “We are a growing, sprawling congregation that one could and would not compare with a heap of dry bones”, so the argument was phrased. Although I knew that it would not be accepted, I had made my proposal in earnest and not as a joke. My confrere obviously overlooked, that this story is in no way a doomsday prophecy
What would this story concretely mean for you? Whenever you sit together in your discussions and deliberations, be it in groups or in the general assembly and you feel like a heap of dry bones facing difficult issues, then remember this text: I will pour out my Spirit upon you and you will come alive. In the measure you trust the Spirit, you will find the right solution and answer to whatever problem you are facing. I attended once a General Chapter and observed that whenever the discussion became too intense and got nowhere the facilitator of the group would call time-out and began to sing a song or say a prayer to the Holy Spirit. And after a period of silence the discussion would resume.
I would therefore like to take this biblical story as a starting point for my conference. I am concerned with two aspects which touch the dynamics that are at work during an assembly like the one you are facing one now. The success of the Chapter depends on two things: first, how much you really consider the presence and constant guidance of the Holy Spirit at any juncture of the chapter and secondly how much effort and serious work you are willing to put into it in order to find solutions and make recommendations which are answers to situations in which we live and work. I uphold here the principle that was already used at the first Council in Jerusalem where the assembly phrased its recommendations with the words: The Holy Spirit and we have decided.
I. The constant awareness of the Spirit’s presence
Jesus our Model for Mission
The Draft Statement begins correctly with Jesus as our Model and his mission as that of being the Kingdom of God, but it wants to look at both through the lens of prophetic dialogue. After all, it is his mission we are commissioned to carry on to the end of the earth (Math 28:19).The draft text says:
"The Divine Word became incarnate in a particular historical situation" and, although our concrete situation today is radically different, the "example of Jesus determines the way in which we participate in his mission. We seek dialogue with all and present the good news of God's love to them" (8).
Jesus’ main concern was the Kingdom of God, a phrase widely used today. His person and his mission have to be seen and understood in the context of this symbol. Therefore, it is necessary to define our mission in the context of Jesus’ mission as the Draft Statement puts it:
The ultimate purpose of our mission today is the same as it has been since the time
of our Founder, "to proclaim the Kingdom of God's love" (cf. Prologue) as the common destiny of all humanity and the horizon toward which we travel. It is from the internal loving dialogue of the triune God that this mission emerges, a dialogue of love and forgiveness with all humanity. We do not invent our own mission - it is
Missio Dei - we are called by the Father, sent by the Word and led by the Spirit (GC1988 Spirituality) (D.St.14).
We should, however, not forget that religious life cannot and does not have a mission different from the mission of the Church - a mission which is no other than the mission of God. We are of, for, in and from the Church, because the Church is of, for, in and from God in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit. We do not want or need any other mission than God's mission. We have situated ourselves in a particular context as religious, and the world and Church have succeeded, as they always do, in putting us into a context within contexts - a fact that we should not forget, whatever we may want to say about our particular mission in relation to today’s world.
Having made clear, that the center of Jesus’ concern was the Kingdom of God, aiming at the transformation of the whole of creation, there remains a second basic question: What is the ultimate obligation we have before the God of Jesus? Or: What did Jesus expect from those who would listen to his message? The answer is contained in the two words which we find 20 times in the Gospel: Follow me!
There is no doubt that the essential vocation of every Christian is to follow the Lord as he presents himself in the Gospel (LG 44). This holds for religious life as well. The three essential aspects of religious life are the following:
- a call to follow the Lord in his radical lifestyle
- to live this call in a community with a particular charism
- and to live this in our time and situation alert to the signs of the times
according to the prophetic dimension of religious life in the Church.
(Most chapters that I have attended followed these three characteristics, normally stressing one or the other.)
The most important of these three is the one which defines the following of Jesus as the fundamental norm and the supreme law for all communities.
Since the fundamental norm of the religious life is a following of Christ as proposed by the Gospel, such is to be regarded by all communities as their supreme law (P.C. 2).
In other words, the Council is stating here that the pattern to be followed and the standard by which everything must be measured is the Jesus who walked this earth. We are called to follow the one who lived our life and who suffered our death. His actions, his behavior
and his attitudes are the pattern to be followed by everyone who calls himself/herself a disciple of Jesus. The prayer we said in preparation for the Chapter expressed this clearly when we prayed: “Give us the grace to have the courage to change our mentality, our attitudes and our behavior.”
Discipleship is seen as having an identity instilling power not only for us religious but for every Christian and the Church as a whole. As the German Bishops’ Conference years ago - facing the crisis of faith in Europe - put it. “The way of the crisis in which we find ourselves today can only be a way back into following the Lord once again as he walked over this earth.” This resonates the sentence in the draft statement: “The example of Jesus determines the way in which we participate in his mission “(8).
What was it in Jesus that inspired people to leave everything, to be “on the way” and follow him? What drove this Jesus? What was emanating from him that put people almost under a spell? What burnt in him that he could not retain but had to throw out, to communicate in order to draw all people to him? In the Gospel of Luke we find that phrase which we could take as a door to the core of Jesus’ message and to the life principle that guided this person.
I came to throw fire on this earth and how much I desire to see it burning (Lk 12:49).
What was this fire, Jesus wanted to see burning in everyone who would follow him? How much are we alive with this fire? A protestant theologian who had visited their missions in Africa and Asia told me, that he had come to the conclusion during his visit, that the only ones who are today seriously concerned with witnessing and proclaiming the message of Jesus with enthusiasm and convictions, are the sectarian churches. It was Karl Rahner who already 50 year ago told us that the future Christian has to be a mystic, a person with a deep experience of the God of Jesus Christ, burning with the fire he came to throw into the world. Our witness is and will be the sharing of our God-experiences, the only witness people consider authentic.
There is story told about famous Rabbi which might provoke the same question addressed to you and me testing our zeal and commitment to the Lord and his mission.
In a village in Russia in the last century, the rich people protected their property by hiring people who would watch over it during the night. One evening Rabbi Naftalis was walking at the edge of one of these properties and he ran into one of the
watchmen who was making his rounds. The Rabbi asked him, "For whom are you walking, young man?" The watchman told him the name of the owner but he added, "And you, Rabbi, for whom are you walking?" The word hit the Rabbi like a flying arrow. After a long silence with some effort he replied, "At the moment I am not walking for anyone." Then the Rabbi asked, "Are you willing to become my servant?" Of course, with pleasure, the watchman replied, "but what will I have to do?" The Rabbi answered, "You will have to remind me for whom I am supposed to walk." (Chassidic Tradition)
Question: For whom do you walk? In whose service are you living?
The Holy Spirit, the fire Jesus came to cast on this earth
What was this fire if not the Holy Spirit? One of the main characteristics of the person of Jesus is that he was “a man of the Spirit” All four Gospels, but particularly Luke, testify to Jesus as being a man of the Spirit. From the very beginning he is uniquely a person of the Spirit, even by origin, so that he is "holy, the Son of God" (Lk 1:35). While John the Baptist is "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Lk 1:15), Jesus is "conceived by the Holy Spirit" (Lk 1:35). In his baptism by John, Jesus receives a special bestowal of the Holy Spirit to such a degree that John characterizes Jesus as "the baptizer with the Holy Spirit" (Jn 1:33). In his public life Jesus "is driven by the Holy Spirit" (Mk 1:12); he prays in the Holy Spirit (Lk 5:16, 6:12); he "overflows with joy in the Holy Spirit" (Lk 10:21); he drives out demons by the "power of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 12:28); he heals the sick through "the power that is in him" (Lk 5:17). How strong this power can be that goes out from him is shown in the story of the woman who touched his cloak from behind (Lk 8:43-48; Mk 5:25-34). Based on this evidence in Scripture a new kind of Christology has recently be presented called Spirit Christology.
In the Gospel of John Jesus’ entire mission consists in releasing the power of God, the Holy Spirit into his creation. When the risen Lord appears to his disciples on Easter Morning he bestows on them his greatest gift: the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Luke there is only one prayer we should be concerned about: the prayer for the gift of Holy Spirit, because if we have the Holy Spirit we have everything Jesus wanted to bring. In the words of Jürgen Moltman:
The gift and presence of the Holy Spirit it the greatest, most wonderful thing which can happen to us, to the human community, to all living beings and this earth of ours. For in the Holy Spirit we have the presence, not of one or other of the many good and evil spirits, but of God himself, the creative, vivifying, redeeming and sanctifying God. In the presence of the Holy Spirit we have the beginning and the end of history, of sin and guilt, suffering and death. In the presence of the Holy Spirit we have the beginning of that process whereby creation is being perfected until it becomes the Kingdom of God.
As in the creation story where the “ruah Eloim” is breathed into Adam to transform him into a living creature, so the risen Christ in his first encounter with his disciples after Easter breathes on his disciples and fills them with the new life which he has gained for them through his death and resurrection.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:21-22).
To carry out this mission the disciples must be filled with the same power of the Holy Spirit that burnt in Jesus. Jesus commissioned his disciple, but he knew that they could only carry out that mission if the same Spirit, that was burning in him, would be burning also in them.
What we need most today is a firm belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and in the life of the SVD as a whole. Since Jesus’ life is our life and his mission is our mission, we must be driven by the same Spirit to become like him and carry on his mission like he did.
I have always marveled about the fact how deeply our founder grasped this inner connection between mission and the Holy Spirit. It was most probably this connection that made the devotion to the Holy Spirit an integral part of our Society. Without burning with the fire that burnt in Jesus, there could be no missionary to carry on the mission of Christ.
Our Founder knew very well the importance of the Holy Spirit in our mission and this idea is enshrined in almost all of our Constitutions. Most clearly in Const. 105:
Since missionary activity is by its very nature the work and revelation of the Holy Spirit, we place ourselves and our Society entirely under his guidance and direction. His light enables us to understand the Gospel, to interpret the signs of the times and thus discern the will of God. His strength empowers us to become faithful co-workers and missionaries of the Divine Word.
Or as it is stated in the Draft Statement with regard to Jesus, whose mission it was to release the Spirit and to fill the disciples with his Spirit for mission:
Jesus, the Word of the Father, opens the hearts of the two disciples to a richer understanding of who he is and gives them courage and hope. By the guidance of his Spirit we too are led through his ministry, death and resurrection to a deeper knowledge of God as a Triune community of total-giving, total-receiving, and total-loving, ever present in our world and our lives. The presence of the Spirit sustains each of us in the lifelong process of becoming the full person the Father desires, as we grow as human beings in our relationships to God, to ourselves, to other people and creation (c. 523). This life in the Spirit is what we mean by spirituality (D. St. 39).
All the preparations and all our considerations that have gone into planning this chapter will produce small results, if we don’t have the master’s spirit, the essential ingredient for the life of a disciple.
A young man was apprenticed to a master artist who produced the most beautiful stained glass windows ever seen. The apprentice could not approach the master's genius, so he borrowed his master's tools, thinking that was the answer. After several weeks, the young man said to his teacher, "I'm not doing any better with your tools than I did with mine." The teacher replied, "So, it's not the tools of the master you need; it's the spirit of the master you need."
Only with the Holy Spirit can this Chapter become like fire and stir into flame - as St Paul would say - the hearts of every SVD. After all, only those, who themselves are on fire, can set aflame others.
What is needed most, is, therefore, first of all an unwavering trust and belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit who can enliven and will enliven our imagination and our enthusiasm for Christ and the mission he entrusted to us. So that our young have visions, not Illusions and our old ones may have dreams and not nightmares when thinking about the future of our society.
To stay alert, to be open, to be convinced in a conscious way that the Spirit is present should be the background against which you enter into all your chapter deliberations. Thomas Merton puts it this way: Since we are baptized the Spirit lives in us, he is there, we don’t have to call him down. We must awaken him who is in us so that he can speak to us and through us.
Without saying that we should be raving Charismatics we, the sons of Arnold Janssen who made the devotion to the Holy Spirit an integral part of our society, should be filled with and conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us and in our Society. In the measure we
become open to him I am sure that he will give visions to the young and dreams to the old and with it will show us the way towards a future full of hope.
II. The use of our intelligence as a gift for finding solutions
Following the basic principle of the early Church in its decision-making processes we have to use all our intelligence, our imaginative gifts and skills to find solutions and set directions for the problems and difficulties we are facing today. The Holy Spirit cannot do without us, having done our homework, so to speak. We have to face and name the thorny problems and find solutions. Nothing is gained, if we go home seemingly in peace, yet a whole range of difficulties and unsolved matters have not been touched, because nobody wanted to deal with them. If we face them with openness and mutual love as well as respect for differences in opinion, we are assured that the Spirit will be with us to find solutions or at least ways of living with the pain and the uncertainty.
Today we talk a lot about a paradigm shift in contrast to a linear change. Linear would mean that we are looking at what is, and extend it forward into the future. That can be done and has been done. Linear change is change based on continuation of what has been, with some slight or major variations (like rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic instead of changing the route of the ship). That is often what we mean when talking about trends, and how a particular trend may continue into the future.
A paradigm shift, on the other hand, is that movement, which begins when earlier systems of beliefs no longer work and a new movement has started to replace the old, bringing with it new theories and a new understanding of the underlying realities. Others have called it “breakpoint” which describes a time of change when old solutions no longer work because the rules have shifted 180 degrees from what we have always known and applied. We need to see the present reality and the possible future in a way that is different from our usual viewpoint. We cannot anymore predict the future – rather, we have to “invent” it. What we need is the presence of the Spirit and that at any time in the history of our mission. Our Founder never got tired to remind us of that, but we need him today twice as much, because we live in a time of such rapid and enormous changes. We need prophets to help us discern which way the Spirit wants us to move and as religious be have a prophetic role in the Church.
However, if we use the word prophetic - and we should not hesitate to do so - we should let ourselves be reminded that a prophet very often does not represent the progressive elements of the time but may call us back to the Word of God and demand that we do not swim with the current but move in exactly the opposite direction. One should not just equate the prophetic with appositional consciousness. For example, the present Pope in an address to the religious women recently commented that in his opinion religious life is
exposed to the “the danger of mediocrity, adopting bourgeois values and a consumer mentality.” Some people got angry about this comment. Whether the Pope is right or not, it still might be wise to listen to his comment. The prophetic dialogue challenges us to listen in particular to those who may criticize us and question our way of living and our life style. The signs of the time can be very uncomfortable and upsetting. To wave them away, will not help. We will have to examine them carefully. The former General of the Franciscan order once said to me: “Whenever we discuss matters of our life-style the discussions either get heated and break up, or we shelve the problem to a committee to look into.”
Two things are asked for: first, to recognize that we are no longer involved in linear change; second, we need a tremendous belief in God, trusting that we as religious have still something to offer to the people of God. We need to scout the land and have a faith deep enough and strong enough to walk into this new land, fearful perhaps, but not daunted or paralyzed by our fears. Because religious life exists for a reason, not just for itself, it exists as part of God‘s plan for the carrying out of the mission of Christ for the salvation of all. What impedes this mission must be eliminated, and what assists this mission needs to be embraced and done with passion. Our congregation is not a place for perfect people or a preserve for men of steel. It is not an arena for gladiators, but home to a crowd of sinners infinitely loved by God.
What we have to develop for our situation today is trust in the power of the Holy Spirit who made dry bones come alive. This, however, will not dispense us of our own efforts to discover the signs of the Spirit at work in the world around us and among us. We have to release the power of our imagination and stretch ourselves towards new ways never traveled before to carry on the mission for the Kingdom. To rely solely on old patterns will not do, the paradigm shift we are undergoing is too obvious. Since we are disciples of Jesus whose mission we want to carry on, we have one firm starting point: we will have to turn to Jesus first and then go outdoors and proclaim what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then proclaim how we have been changed by the power of this same Spirit.
Questions for reflections
● How sincerely am I convinced of the presence of the Holy Spirit during this Chapter and how ardently do I pray daily that his presence helps me personally and us all to achieve what God, through the Holy Spirit, wants to bring about through this Chapter irrespective whether the common resolutions are agreeable or not to my lifestyle and my mission work?
● How resolved am I to engage sincerely and prayerfully with all the members of the chapter in the search for solutions and guidelines for the problems we are facing?
● How willing am I to accept and support even those decisions which may not take my personal interests into consideration?
● Am I willing to work towards fundamental changes in my personal life and in my mission activities in general, if the Chapter resolutions ask for such a change?
● In the Draft Document under Called to Conversion (51-57) there are listed six being called: to Brotherhood - Deeper Faith - to Solidarity - to be more Catholic - to more Trust - to the Cross. Which of these being called can I honestly say are lived concerns in my life and which are not and why?
However, as disciples of Jesus, who feel called to carry on his mission, we should not forget the following: we must work hard and intelligently to respond adequately to the challenges of today and tomorrow, but we should not be driven obsessively with the sole aim to be by all means successful, because success is no word for God in the Bible. What counts for us is to be faithful to witnessing to the message we proclaim, whether we have success or not. An example for us could be the attitude of Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
When Mother Teresa was asked how she could face the overwhelming odds against her work in Calcutta, where the people she cared for were just a tiny fraction of those dying in the streets, she replied, "The good Lord did not sent me into the streets of Calcutta in order to be successful in what I do but to be faithful in witnessing to his love present in the midst of human suffering in the love I show to these people."
If you are conscious of and alert and open to the Spirit at all stages of your deliberations during this chapter you will have these three assurances: